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Want a More Perfect Union? Teachers Step Up!

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Andrew Vega teachers 8th grade English/Language Arts at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston. He is an alumnus of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship and currently an America Achieves Teaching Fellow. Follow him on twitter at @mravega.

I am a supporter of teachers unions. While I openly admit that this was not the case in my early days of teaching, I can proudly say so now. I have met inspiring colleagues throughout my career who have pushed my thinking on unions and helped me realize that our profession continues to be under attack. Teachers must strive every day to professionalize our work and make sure we are treated in accordance with the importance of the work that we do. At times, however, this means challenging each other and advocating for changes within our unions.

As recently as last year, my union, the Boston Teachers Union, required that all members vote in person at the union hall. With the union hall located in the far reaches of the city, voting meant an additional one to two hour commute for some teachers. Any teacher will tell you that the day is already long. As an advocate for teachers, the union should make voting accessible for all members. But this wasn't the case. Due in part to this in-person requirement, only 13 percent of the membership voted in the previous election.

At the time, a group of teachers, myself included, sought to improve our union and become more actively involved with it. We wanted a way for voices like ours to be heard. The best way to do this, we determined, was by changing the voting policy so that all members could more easily access the voting process. What began as a conversation over beers at a local Irish pub became BTUVotes, a grassroots, teacher-led movement.

Our leadership was informal. Not all the teachers involved were union representatives; indeed, some had never attended a meeting. What we shared was the knowledge that our union, while necessary and successful in many ways, was not necessarily representative of all teachers' views. The effort to garner support for this required reaching out to colleagues around the district in a grassroots effort to get teachers on board. Meetings over coffee and in pubs, e-mails to alumni networks of teaching programs, and information sessions worked to spread the word about the movement. Through this effort, more than 1600 teachers signed a petition to take the idea of mail-in ballots to a vote at a union membership meeting.

To this day, attending the union meeting where that vote took place has been one of the most inspiring moments of my teaching career. Over 400 teachers filled the union hall--tremendously more than the usual attendance--to lend their voices in support of mail-in ballots. Despite the extraordinary turnout, the initiative failed by five votes, and many teachers who had internalized frustration with the union had their views validated, rather than upended.

The group persevered, however, and a modified version of the change to the BTU voting policy was approved in the fall. Many saw this change as controversial and the conversation continues, but meaningful change is not supposed to be without resistance.

The message here? It is easy to complain about the challenges we face as teachers, but it is another thing to step up and take on leadership. We need our unions, but our unions also need us--they need us to be involved and help them effectively protect us and thereby protect the needs of our students. Leadership need not be formal. I was part of a change in a large urban district that began with a small group of teachers talking over drinks. The next time you find yourself venting about an issue regarding your school, district, union, or classroom, I ask my fellow teachers to ask themselves: "What can I do to fix the problem?" If your answer is "nothing," you aren't stepping up.

- Andrew Vega

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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